The new Arab revolt

Life inside Mubarak’s torture chambers, a letter from Tunisia, why the neoconservatives are still wr

In this week's New Statesman, we publish a special spread on revolt in the Arab world, featuring Tariq Ramadan, Lana Asfour, Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz.

Maajid Nawaz spent four years in prison in Egypt between 2002 and 2006 for his role as leader of the pan-Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir. In this week's New Statesman, Nawaz discusses life in one of Mubarak's torture centres.

I was "Number 42" in the dungeons of Hosni Mubarak's torture facilities. Before me were 41 poor souls, taken one by one and electrocuted. Behind me were hundreds more. Wives were stripped and tortured in front of their husbands, children electrocuted in front of their parents. Few returned from the darkness of Cairo's el-Gihaz and Lazoughly cells . . .

Mubarak's Egypt perfected the art of torture without leaving a mark. His was a regime that terrorised an entire population into silence. His was a regime that basked in the lavish attention of western leaders while Egyptian Islamists, communists and democrats all lived in fear. Now it's game over for him and his regime.

The Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan comments on a time of momentous change in the Arab world and asks who will fill the power vacuum being created in the Middle East.

"A barrier has fallen," writes Ramadan. "Nothing will be the same again. It is quite likely that other countries will follow the lead of Egypt, given its central and symbolic significance."

Presidents and kings are feeling the pressure of this historical turning point. The unrest has reached Algeria, Yemen and Mauritania. One should also look at Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia. The rulers of all these countries know that if the Egyptian is collapsing, they run the risk of the same destiny.

Egypt could well prove the tipping point for reform and democracy in the Arab world, according to Ramadan.

This state of instability is worrying and at the same time very promising. The Arab world is awakening with dignity and hope. The changes spell hope for true democrats, and trouble for those who would sacrifice democratic principle to their economic and geostrategic calculations.

What will fill the power vacuum is not solely the decision of the populace in the Arab world, however.

Neither the United States nor Europe, not to mention Israel, will easily allow the Egyptian people to make their dream of democracy and freedom come true. The strategic and geopolitical considerations are such that the reform movement will be, and is already, closely monitored by US agencies in co-ordination with the Egyptian army, which has played for time and assumed the crucial role of mediator.

Lana Asfour reports from the epicentre of the Arab revolt, Tunisia.

Whatever Tunisia's political landscape will look like in six months, it is clear that the hard work is just beginning. Tunisia has to address institutional corruption after years of dictatorship and learn how to exercise democracy in all areas of life.

But the novelty of freedom has still not worn off, according to Asfour.

Back on the tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue [in Tunis], the mood is exuberant. People are proud of what they have achieved and delighted to be able to speak freely without threat of arrest and torture.

It has been a very civilised revolution, she argues:

What is reassuring about this revolution is that there is little desire for vengeance against those who had ties to the RCD. Tunisia, which can boast a highly educated population and equal rights for women, has conducted a very civilised revolution.

Finally, Mehdi Hasan attacks the crude use of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in order to justify George Bush's foreign policy in the region.

Blair and Bush were not interested in Arab freedom and democracy initially, argues Hasan.

Freedom for the Iraqis became the primary justification for the war only after weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a figment of the neoconservative imagination.

It wasn't that we were opposed to a "freedom agenda" in the Middle East but that we rejected the neocon formula that said democracy could be delivered through the barrel of a gun. We objected to the means, not the ends.

In a 2007 report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that the Bush administration had friendly relations with more than half of the 45 "non-free" countries in the world. Those included Egypt and Tunisia – the latter is now free from the grip of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the former, at the time of writing, is on the brink of liberation from Mubarak's police. Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia could be next. And the neocons, smug and sanctimonious, can't take credit for any of these events. Are we all neocons now? Of course not.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.